Compromised Rights

For those of us concerned about women's health, the first few months of the 112th Congress have felt a lot like the early days of the George W. Bush administration. Republicans have introduced a cascade of anti-choice bills, each more appalling than the last. Far from stemming the tide of radical legislation, the Democrats' years of seeking the "middle ground" on this issue have only emboldened social conservatives. Rep. Joe Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania, recently declared, "This House is more pro-life than it's ever been."

Coming from Pitts, this is quite the statement. After all, he was responsible for the most prominent piece of anti-choice legislation in the last Congress -- an amendment to the health-care bill that he co-authored with Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak -- which would have ensured that federal funds could not be used "to pay for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion." Generously, the amendment made exceptions for survivors of rape and incest and in cases where the mother's life is at risk.

For feminists, the Stupak-Pitts Amendment was a bellwether. With a pro-choice president in the White House, would nominally pro-choice Democrats stand up and fight for a health-care bill without such restrictions? Or would they cave to Republicans -- and conservative Democrats -- and agree that abortion services are not health care?

We all know how that one turned out. The amendment was stripped out before the bill passed, but President Barack Obama issued an executive order the following day that replicated its language prohibiting federal funding for abortions.

Almost exactly a year later, a bipartisan -- yes, bipartisan! -- group of congressmen has introduced H.R. 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," which would reiterate the federal government's commitment to preventing poor women from exercising their reproductive rights. Pitts also authored H.R. 358, a bill that would allow hospitals to refuse to perform and also effectively ban insurance coverage of abortion in the new health-care system.

In a recent fundraising letter to supporters, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wrote, "House Republicans have begun a comprehensive and radical assault on a woman's right to choose." A fair criticism. But coming from the DCCC, which supported many of the moderate and conservative Democrats who have co-sponsored and voted for anti-choice legislation, it rings hollow. The bills that conservatives are introducing these days, however radical they may be, are really just extensions of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. We should have seen this coming.

Yet Sen. Barbara Boxer seemed surprised that Republicans are pushing such draconian legislation. She said H.R. 3 "breaks faith with a decades-long bipartisan compromise, and it risks the health and lives of women."

Far from breaking faith with decades of compromise on this issue, extreme anti-choice legislation is the result of it. And it's no longer just about abortion. Republicans in the House voted to slash all Title X funding -- money that provides low -- income women with contraception, cancer screening, and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. Some more moderate Republicans are claiming this is purely financial: Taxpayers can't spare $327 million for low-income women's health and family planning. Never mind that every $1 spent on Title X programs saves $4 down the road.

This still doesn't go far enough for some conservative lawmakers. Having won the battle to marginalize reproductive care in the health-insurance debate, they have ramped up attacks on Planned Parenthood -- which, in the absence of true health-care reform, is the de facto health-care provider for millions of women. The House overwhelmingly passed an amendment designating Planned Parenthood as ineligible for federal funds, even those that are not used to provide abortions. The legislation will no doubt have the intended effect of further marginalizing women's reproductive health care.

With or without federal funding, because Planned Parenthood offers low-cost preventive care that women need and may not otherwise be able to afford, it is providing a service to the U.S. government. Although many Democrats spoke up for the organization during the floor debate, none acknowledged that Planned Parenthood fills a gap that Democrats themselves created by not fully supporting reproductive rights in major bills like the health-reform legislation.

It's all well and good for Democrats to say we need to "defend women's rights." I'm not sure, however, that they understand how they got us into this mess. Retreat breeds retreat. It's time to stop compromising.

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